There’s little known about the early life of the Penobscot chief who is Orono’s namesake
As Orono moves ahead with plans to erect new welcome signs that feature the Penobscot Nation chief for whom the town was named, there’s no definitive history detailing Joseph Orono’s early life before he became chief.
Chief Orono led the Penobscot Nation as American colonists won their independence from the British, and he rallied Penobscot Nation members to the colonial cause. He later represented the tribe before the new American government, negotiating to preserve most of what is the Bangor region today as Penobscot territory, before that changed following his death.
But there hasn’t been universal agreement on his origins and early life before he became chief. There’s no certainty, either, over his age when he died or about the origins of the name Orono. Still, there have been poems written about him, a town named for him (and, later, a Minnesota town named for the Maine town), and a fountain with his face carved into it in a Philadelphia park.
The Penobscot Nation has concluded that Joseph Orono likely had both French and Penobscot lineage as the offspring of a Penobscot chief’s daughter and a father of French descent. But it’s also been asserted at times that Chief Orono was white, and captured from his family by Native Americans as a young child.
“He’s actually a story of America in his own way,” Darren Ranco, chair of the University of Maine’s Native American Studies program and a Penobscot Nation member, told the Orono Town Council in August 2020. “He shepherded the Penobscot Nation from an English-colonial situation to an American-colonial situation, which was really important.”
Chief Orono died in 1801, and the town of Orono was incorporated five years later, with the name meant to honor the late chief, according to the town’s website.
‘Unquestionably of white origin’
Joseph Orono’s apparent birthdate of 1688 — which would mean he died at 113 — is listed in an account of his life through the lens of the Catholic Church that asserts he was white and stolen from his family.
That account is contained in a 1908 volume of the journal “The American Catholic Historical Researches,” which published an article detailing the stories of famed “Catholic Indians” who aided the colonists during the American Revolution.
Here, Orono’s life is described as starting in 1688, and the account declares he was stolen by Native Americans as a toddler.
“Orono was unquestionably of white origin,” the article reads. He was from York, Maine, and born into the Donnell family. In 1692, the place where his family was living was attacked by Native Americans and he was taken, it says.
Another account of Orono’s origin is closer to what Penobscot historians think today.
William D. Williamson, the second governor of Maine and one of the state’s first congressmen, wrote to the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1838, rejecting the idea that Orono was a kidnapped white child raised by Native Americans.
Instead, he traced the chief’s lineage to Jean-Vincent d’Abbadie de Saint-Castin, a French-born military official (who later settled among the Abenaki tribe and became a chief) who is the namesake of the Hancock County town Castine.
Williamson describes Orono’s father as a Frenchman — who may have been Saint-Castin’s son or a relative — and his mother as half-French, half-Native American.
Fannie Hardy Eckstorm, a widely cited source on the story of Orono, echoed this assessment in a 1929 talk to the Bangor Historical Society, saying the story of his kidnapping was improbable.
She said the origin of the name Orono was unclear: It couldn’t be English and it wasn’t Native American. It could have been French — Orono was a French speaker — but she’d found no French families whose name could have been made into Orono. The chief had another Native American name used within the tribe, she said, and his descendants had the last name Lewis.
Ranco told Orono councilors that more recent research and scholarships point to Orono’s paternal grandfather being Saint-Castin and his maternal grandfather being the Penobscot Nation Chief Madockawando.
Marrying outside of the tribe was a preference for the Penobscot people for the sake of political alliance-building, which makes this version of Orono’s origin most probable, Ranco explained.
“I’m not convinced of all those stories, but the tracing of his ancestry through his mother’s family is a really critical thing,” he said. “Penobscots, at the time, were still matrilineal, in terms of thinking about our identities, who we are.”
A chief for the colonial cause
Orono had become the Penobscot Nation’s chief in time for the Revolutionary War, and there are records of him delivering an impassioned speech in support of the colonists and rising up against the British, Ranco said.
Eckstorm found a 1764 surveyor’s report to be the earliest document mentioning Orono, but it’s unclear when he became the Penobscots’ chief. What is clear, though, is that he was alive, an adult and possibly a Penobscot leader when Lt. Gov. Spencer Phips of the Massachusetts Bay Colony put a bounty on the heads of the Penobscot people and directed white settlers to hunt them freely. The Phips Proclamation called Penobscots enemies, rebels and traitors to King George II.
It was likely because of this experience and his strong ties to the French that Chief Orono was motivated to rally the Penobscot people behind the colonists and against the British, Ranco said.
After the Revolutionary War, Orono’s name consistently appears in land claims and treaty documents between the Penobscots and the new American government that set aside the city of Bangor for white settlers and established most of the surrounding area as Penobscot territory, according to Eckstorm.
Orono is also recorded as taking land claim issues before the Massachusetts General Court and the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, as Maine was still a part of Massachusetts at the time.
Those records show that Chief Orono had a penchant for negotiating with the new American government that allowed the Penobscots to maintain control over their land in the region that is today Greater Bangor, according to Ranco. That changed after Orono’s death.
The 1806 incorporation of the town of Orono “ironically…marks a moment when there were many more non-native settlers in the lower Penobscot area, where the dominion and control we exercised…really starts to go in favor of American settlers in the region,” Ranco said.
Ranco could not be reached for comment, and Penobscot Nation officials did not respond to interview requests.